David Ross, a 68-year-old retired Mercedes dealer, better known to some as “The Water Man,” hands out roughly 3,000 bottles of water each week to people living on the streets of downtown San Diego. Potable water, he says, is one of that population's “most pressing needs.”
But, liquid goes in and liquid comes out, making bathroom facilities the second most-pressing need. By Ross' measure, there's a solid 130-block area of Downtown and its adjoining neighborhoods with no public-restroom facilities. It's a problem that's been brushed aside—or, power-washed off sidewalks, actually—for a number of years.
In all of Downtown, there are only two 24-hour public-restroom facilities, one located at the Civic Center and the other at the south end of Fifth Avenue.
Ross, along with two collaborators—Bill Sharp, the president of the construction company Barnhart Inc., and Gerry Limpic, a North County minister—plan to install at least two portable toilets, possibly up to 10, in Downtown's East Village. They'll start with two—similar to what you find at construction sites—in a breezeway on the south side of God's Extended Hand, an 80-year-old homeless-services center at 16th Street and Island Avenue in East Village. The toilets will be accessible 24-hours a day.
“It's on private property. It's off the street,” Ross pointed out. “It's not a bother to anyone.” Sharp has secured private funding to pay for the units, installation and water hook-up for a 60-day trial period. He also got Ross, who regularly berates the City Council on its lack of leadership on homeless issues, a meeting with Councilmember Kevin Faulconer, whose district includes Downtown. Sharp and Ross hope Faulconer will allocate a portion of federal community-development grant money that each councilmember receives annually to cover the costs for the rest of the year. Faulconer didn't respond to CityBeat's requests for comment, but Sharp said the council member seemed receptive to the idea. A neatly bound proposal Sharp put together for Faulconer puts the cost of installing and maintaining 10 portable toilets at roughly $14,600 a year. (The proposal also requests funding for drinking fountains and bottled water.)
“I thought, Hey, let's make it easy for the city to do it initially and see how it goes from there,” Sharp said.
Stewart Payne, executive director of Downtown's Clean and Safe program, which oversees regular sidewalk power-washing, said there's “absolutely” a need for more public restrooms in the urban core—for tourists, for the homeless, for nightclub goers, for workers.
But, in any discussion about public restrooms, the homeless are always a focus. Most people who frequent Downtown know of a restaurant, coffee shop, bookstore or department store where a decently dressed non-customer can use the bathroom without being harassed. But it's not so easy when you're obviously coming in off the street.
In 1995, a city plan to assist the homeless pointed to the need for more 24-hour restrooms. Two years later, after homeless advocate Larry Milligan went on a hunger strike, the City Council voted to keep the Civic Center restrooms open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In 1999, then-Mayor Susan Golding spearheaded a plan to install at least a dozen self-cleaning “automated public toilets” (APTs) Downtown, similar to those found in San Francisco. The program would have cost the city nothing—freestanding advertising kiosks (five for every one toilet) would have generated enough money to pay for the units, their installation and maintenance, plus the city would have netted a share of the advertising revenue. There was one glitch: a city law that bans advertising in the public right-of-way.
“That became a nonstarter, because who's going to pay for these things?” said Jimmy Parker, executive director of the Gaslamp Quarter Association. “It goes all the way back to Mayor [Pete] Wilson…. Wilson was really going after billboards, but in that prohibition on advertising—I don't think it's a bad thing; we don't want advertising on every single building and everywhere else—but if it funds an amenity, something that we need, we have to figure out how we're going to do that.”
Funding APTs and other pieces of “street furniture,” like newsstands and bus shelters, through advertising has proved lucrative for at least two other U.S. cities. In 2005, New York City signed a deal with Cemusa, a Spanish company, and will receive at least $1 billion over 20 years in exchange for Cemusa being the sole provider of the city's street furniture. In 2001, Los Angeles penned a similar deal with Viacom/Decaux with the promise of receiving at least $150 million over 20 years in exchange for allowing the company to sell advertising space on 3,500 items, including 150 automated public toilets. At least three of those APTs were installed in downtown L.A.'s skid row, replacing the portable toilets that were removed after they became, among other things, cathouses.
Ross isn't oblivious to potential problems. “Nothing comes without anticipating a problem or two,” he said. He plans to paint the word “Respect” on the sides of the toilets. Also, “we intend to have that baby lit up like it was 4th of July,” he said. “Hopefully, enough people will know about the fight it's taken to get them that they won't vandalize them.”
Ross said it comes down to helping people maintain “some semblance of human dignity.” Last week, he met a woman and her husband, only recently homeless, who were living out of their car. “She was just cying her eyes out about having to go to the bathroom outside,” he said.
Sharp said he's walked around East Village with Ross, talking to homeless people, many of whom have promised to watch over the toilets. The potties won't go in, Sharp said, until he finds out what the police department thinks of the plan.
San Diego Police Capt. Chris Ball said he's not opposed to the idea—it's all a matter of doing it right.
“Yes, there's a need, but how do we make it work so that it satisfies the needs of the homeless, it satisfies the needs of folks who live and work Downtown, it works so that it doesn't create an unnecessary burden for the police department?
“I don't think people spend really too much time trying to understand what it must be like to live on the street,” Ball added. “I don't think giving them access to bathroom facilities is stretching the envelope.”